I debated on holding off on this until after the Christmas special, but since that traditionally counts as part of the following season, I’ll just go ahead and do it now. Partly because it’s fresh in my mind, and partly because since the Christmas special isn’t going to connect to the rest of this season, it should be judged on its own merits.
Oh, and before I forget: "SPOILERS!"
Oh, and before I forget: "SPOILERS!"
Which makes it sound a little like I’m going to not say very nice things, but that’s not exactly the case. This season was a complete mixed bag, if I’m honest. There was plenty to like, but there was plenty to not like as well.
That being said, I guess I can start with some overall impressions.
This season was different for the reboot in that we got multi-part episodes for the first time. This actually turned out to be a good thing, despite many Saturday nights spent cursing at Stephen Moffet for those cliffhangers. It was a return to the Classic era, where storylines might be broken up over several weeks before the payoff. A perfect example, and one with ties to this season as well, is the Fourth Doctor’s Genesis of the Daleks arc, which was a six-parter when it came out.
It needed this, though. It allowed the stories to breathe, to suck us in and make us care about not only the Doctor and Clara, but about the people they were helping as well. This was an advantage for the Classic Who, and it was put to good use here.
Another high point: Peter Capaldi. From the moment we saw him on that tank playing guitar, we knew he was proving his ownership of the role. And for the majority of the season, he continued to do that. This season was the one where Capaldi officially became my Doctor. After that speech at the end of The Zygon Inversion, how could he not?
Unfortunately, for all the good there was some bad, so let’s go story by story and break it down.
The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar: We were off to a massive start here. Michelle Gonzales was back as Missy, Davros returned, and we had a reference back to the aforementioned Genesis of the Daleks. The story played perfectly and enhanced the relationship between the Doctor and the Master / Mistress as well as showing why Davros is the Doctor’s archenemy, not his Time Lord counterpart. That Davros could play on the Doctor’s guilt and compassion in order to trick him into giving him what he wanted showed not only the Doctor’s inevitable fallibility, but Davros’s own genius as well. THIS is the man I could believe made the Daleks.
And learning that no matter what a Dalek said they felt, the machine they are in forces it to come out as “Exterminate!” was brilliant. Weapons fueled by pure emotion. For a Dalek, there is probably no greater threat.
On the other hand, this was where the first crack appeared in the overall story for the season. The prophecy of a hybrid was mentioned. The issue isn’t that the prophecy existed, mind you. My initial reaction that someone would create a Time Lord / Dalek hybrid was that it would be unstoppable and worth fearing. The problem was that Missy mentioned it in what felt like a throwaway line that indicated it was a massive, all-important thing. If that’s the case, why are we just now hearing about it for the first time in over fifty years of Doctor Who? All that time the previous Doctors spent on Gallifrey, all the angst 9, 10, and even 11 felt, and this never comes up? I think I could have even handled it being an expansion on the Valeyard from the Classic era, really make a connection back, but it was a standalone that felt a bit out of place here.
Otherwise, a great start to season 9!
Under the Lake / Before the Flood: The Doctor Who ghost story. Again, a well thought-out and executed story, even though it felt like it was better suited for seventy minutes rather than ninety. Seeing how the Doctor used his ability to play with time to solve a mystery was nice, and it took him away from Clara and allowed Capaldi to fly on his own for a while, too. Again, brilliant.
The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived: Maise Williams guest stars, and while it was strange at first to see Arya Stark in the Whoniverse, I managed to get over it quickly. She was able to show that she is quite a capable actress, and quickly managed to win me over as Ashildr. It was also nice to see how the Doctor’s best intentions could backfire, as he saved her life, but at the cost of her soul. A strange sort of vampirism, maybe? Still, to see him create an immortal who would come back to haunt him later on was a nice way to show that he shouldn’t meddle so much, but he’ll never stop.
And while it was rewarding to see the matter of Capaldi’s appearance in the Tenth Doctor’s The Fires of Pompeii addressed, and why that face was chosen, it felt like a bit of a let-down once it was all said and done. Still, they didn’t just ignore it like it could have been, so thanks for that. I just wish it had been more… impactful.
The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion: The story of returns, and on reflection one of the better stories of the season. We referenced back to the Fiftieth Anniversary Special and the Zygon peace treaty, we got the return of UNIT, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, and best of all, OSGOOD! At first it annoyed me that they didn’t let us know for sure it was the human version that was back, but once her personality reemerged in the second part of the story, I was willing to forgive them for that.
And that speech. Here we see the Doctor that lived through the Time War, who consigned two races to death or exile from the universe, and who understands more than any living thing what the ravages of war can do to someone. This is not the fun Doctor of the Matt Smith era, nor the emotionally scarred one of the Tennant era. This is what Eccelston’s Doctor would have been like if he never met Rose. This is the War Doctor, one step removed. And honestly? He’s terrifying. If there was anyone I would never want to cross, it’s this man.
The only real bad thing I can think of from this story is that the Zygon weapons turned people into electrified Brillo pads. Still, it hearkened back to the man-in-a-rubber-suit days of the Classic era, so I can overlook that as well.
Sleep No More: The only standalone episode of the season, and it felt like it. The concept of a monster made from the crust in your eyes after sleeping was a good one, and it also had the distinction of being something new for the series. I would have liked to have seen it expounded upon more, especially considering how disjointed the episode felt as it rushed through toward a conclusion.
It stood out for that, and that’s not a good thing.
For the finale, I’m going episode by episode, rather than the arc as a whole.
Face the Raven: We all knew this was Clara’s last run as the Doctor’s companion, and for many it was a season too long. And here it was: the moment of her last hurrah. Or so we thought.
The setup felt like just that—setup. Its only purpose was to put Clara in position to meet her end. And Ashildr’s only purpose was to provide that. I would have almost preferred to see Missy play this role, but considering who was behind it all, that wouldn’t make much sense. No offense to Maise Williams here, but this felt like an excuse to include her character. At least it felt better here than it did later on, but I’m not there yet…
Clara’s death was actually well-done. For too long now, fans have been complaining that Clara thought she was the Doctor, and it was somewhat satisfying to see that it was this very flaw that got her killed. It was a fitting end for the Impossible Girl, even if the season-long foreshadowing felt a bit heavy-handed.
And the Doctor’s response to it, his statement to Ashildr that he had been lost long ago, showed a man who knew such a thing was inevitable yet was powerless to stop it. He knows he’s playing with fire, but does it because it’s his nature. He knows his limits as well, and knew Clara would never understand that concept. When he teleported out to meet his fate, he did so with anger burning inside him again, and that could mean serious trouble for whomever was meeting him on the other side.
Heaven Sent: That he was meeting himself, in a sense, was the perfect answer to that. This episode had moments of brilliance and a concept that was well-worth exploring. As a fan of his performance, I loved it: stick Capaldi in front of a camera and let him go nuts. Awesome.
Then we get to the ending.
This is the single most confusing, convoluted mess I have ever seen in Doctor Who. Timey Wimey? This is so far beyond that it doesn’t even warrant its own amusing catchphrase. Is the Doctor really the Doctor anymore, or a clone of himself? Is he over four billion years old now, or still the same age he was when his image was trapped in the teleport? And does Stephen Moffett even know? Somehow I doubt that last one. I think this was a case of throwing something against the wall to see if it stuck.
And it was all about this suddenly all-important prophecy of a hybrid? Of all the Doctor’s enemies, of all the reasons why someone would do this to him, we went with that? If you say so, but you can do better.
We all know the Doctor is unstoppable, but to show that he’s so stubborn he won’t even die properly has already been done before. Remember The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End? Shot by a Dalek, regenerated into the same face he already had. The Time of the Doctor? GOT TWELVE MORE REGENERATIONS! His tenacity is already well established. Let’s not beat a dead horse for four billion years here.
And yet, that ending. He was in his confession dial the whole time. Brilliant. The desert planet, panning up to see the city in the distance. Back on Gallifrey, at long last. Again, brilliant. “Tell them I’m back. Tell them I took the long way ‘round.” I’d run, what about you?
So. Much. Potential.
Hell Bent: Clara’s alive and in the same diner where Eleven brought Amy and Rory and River after River murdered him? Okay, what? Must be in his head, right? Still, loved the guitar version of Clara’s theme.
Back on Gallifrey, back where he and the Moment changed the planet’s fate. When he drew that line in the sand and then ignored everyone who came for him until Rassilon himself showed up, I was cheering. When he faced off against Rassilon and told him to “get off my planet”, again, cheering.
Then we’re back on the hybrid bandwagon. He’s willing to tell them what they want to know, only he needs someone’s help.
You would think the Doctor never lost a companion before. Even the revived series has addressed it. Rose: trapped in a parallel dimension that is sealed to time. Ten got over it. Donna Noble: had to have her memories wiped or her brain would fry. Ten dealt with it. Amy and Rory: displaced into the past, which then becomes time-locked. Eleven coped.
But when Clara dies because she wasn’t smart enough to know she wasn’t the Doctor? He loses his mind, hijacks his homeworld, shoots one of his own kind and forces a regeneration (and can I just point out that they handled it a lot better than the Doctor ever did, despite having nowhere near the experience with it that he does?), kidnaps a dead woman, and tries to bring her back to life.
He then steals another TARDIS and takes her to the end of time itself where Gallifrey’s burning and who’s sitting there watching it happen? Not Missy, though in this case I insist it should have been. Ashildr. She lectures him on his stupidity, which was brilliant. His plan is to do a Donna on Clara and make her forget him so she can live a normal life. While that was a stretch, I can at least accept it.
Then it goes haywire and made me curse at Moffett for the wrong reasons.
Clara overhears, because naturally, and reprograms the neural device so it will work on him instead. He doesn’t believe her, and tells her they’ll take the chance together.
This could have been salvaged at this point. He begins telling her goodbye, and then she collapses. He’s visiting her at the diner in Nevada as a final farewell. That would be the best ending.
But does that happen? No. Clara manages to outsmart the Doctor, steals a TARDIS of her own, and flies off with Ashildr. In effect, she becomes the Doctor, even with her own companion.
No. Just, no.
Things began so well, then went wildly off-course. The season had its moments, namely those where Capaldi proved the role was his and who were those guys named Smith and Tennant anyway? We got stories that felt fleshed out and full. We got Osgood back, and Missy who was awesome as usual.
We also got a random rumor about a hybrid and Clara becoming the Doctor like she already thought she was, despite this already getting her killed.
And lest I be accused of Clara-bashing here, I'm not. Really. When she showed up as the new companion for Eleven post-Amy and Rory, I was willing to give her a chance. I ended up liking the entire "Impossible Girl" story arc, even if it did come off a little Mary Sue at times. When Eleven regenerated to Twelve, it made sense for her to stick around, give a little familiarity while all of us got used to the Doctor's new face along with him. It was here that she started to almost overshadow the Doctor, and since he's the titular character, that's not good. Had they left her alone at the end of Last Christmas, having aged without the Doctor, I would have been fine. She just held on a season too long, that's all. Her entire character arc this time around was "I'm just as good at being the Doctor as the Doctor, so watch what happens." No, you aren't, and it should have gotten you killed. The only reason you survived is... well... bad writing.
River Song is back in the Christmas Special (the interestingly named Husbands of River Song), and next season introduces a new companion altogether which means it’s a fresh story again, so this can be redeemed. Just please, for the sake of us who love the show, don’t play fan service with yourself anymore, Mister Moffett. Give us back the Doctor / Companion relationship that made the show work for over fifty years. Let the character not only think he's the most clever person in the room, but show it's the truth.
Above all, remember there’s only one Doctor.
And for now, thankfully, that’s Peter Capaldi.